The Content of Our Character(s): On Female Characters in Theatre & Film

I received this casting notice in my email today:  casting notice 1

Let’s talk about this for a second.  There are six roles in this one-act and of those, only two are for women.  This play is also written and directed by men so that’s two more men.  So women make up a measly 25% of this entire creative project.

Now let’s look at the characters and their descriptions.  First, let us consider the length of each description.  Obviously, Noah is our main character, not only because he is referenced in every other character’s description, but also because his description is the lengthiest.  Our two female characters have barely a sentence.  The one exception here is that of our drug dealer, who has the shortest of all descriptions at just three words.  So in case you’re wondering, by description-length alone, women are only slightly more interesting than a drug dealer.

Now let’s get to the actual content of these descriptions.  It is obvious this writer has spent a LOT of time creating the character of Noah and even Sammy, his best friend.  As an actor, I can read Noah’s description and get an understanding of where he is emotionally and physically in his life before I read one word of dialogue.  I can identify with being a recent college grad stuck in an endless cycle of part-time jobs, being worried about success, and even struggling with the idea of committing to something or someone.  He sounds like an actual person with actual feelings.

And then there are the two female characters; our 25% of the play, whose descriptions also make them out to be about 25% of an actual person.  And this is what I REALLY want to talk about, because I want you to understand just how much gender disparity there is in the entertainment industry.  It’s not just about HOW MANY roles and jobs there are for women, it is also about the QUALITY of the roles and jobs available to women.  I read character breakdowns every day for a variety of projects, and the majority look something like this one.

In this play, I have a choice: either I am Noah’s current love interest who “also happens to be a stripper” (Go figure!  Probably with a “heart of gold” too!) OR I can be Noah’s ex-girlfriend who is a lawyer (read: probably a “bitch”).  Either way, the female character is there solely to be tied to our male protagonist.  Their relationship to our male protagonist, Noah, is their whole character description. And while that’s true for all the other characters in this play, this is the case with 90% of the female character breakdowns I read every day.  Almost every single one is about how that woman relates to another man in the project as if her having her own life and personality is impossible to imagine or write.  Who are these women?  What do we know about them other than their relationship to our main male protagonist?  In this particular example, we know nothing except that one is a stripper and the other is a lawyer, which brings me to my next point…

Women are frequently written as stereotypes and/or labels, not people.  This ties in to how society often sees and labels women.  Almost every female character breakdown I read is mainly physical (“curvy but skinny…” is always my favorite…which is NOT a real thing, dudes) and/or panders to a very specific stereotype: whore, stripper, virgin, mother, bitch, nerdy best friend, girl next door, manic pixie dream girl.  Not only does this reduce half the population to being one-dimensional, purely physical beings, it’s also incredibly lazy writing.  Instead of doing the harder job of writing a real woman with real flaws, the writer reduces her to a “flawed” stereotype like a stripper as if that fills in all the missing character development the writer should have written in the first place.  And for the record, there are plenty of women who are strippers who aren’t solely that one thing and are probably lovely individuals who AREN’T doing it as a “cry for help” or are in need of a male savior figure (even Jesus Christ).  Maybe the problem is that even the word “woman” carries with it so much baggage and so many assumptions that some writers have a hard time sifting through that to see that women are people first and “women” second.  We have hopes and fears and struggles and triumphs and they are not so different from the men around us.  Conflict resolution and emotional development are universal; women and men experience these things every day regardless of gender, so why is it easier for so many writers to develop and write real male characters but not real female ones?  Is it any wonder that actresses like Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, AND Emily Blunt are all starring in films this fall (Secret in Their Eyes, Our Brand is Crisis, and Sicario, respectively) where their roles were originally written for men?

This one example is far and away not the worst, but it shows how far we still have to go for women in this business.  If we are to take the old adage, “write what you know” seriously, then not only do we need more female writers writing projects for women, we also need to hold male writers accountable for the KINDS of female characters they write.  Unless these men exclusively hang out with hookers-with-hearts-of-gold and virginal cheerleaders (and honestly, if they do, they have some deep psychological issues that probably need working out), then why can’t they write a woman as a real person beyond a label?  Even their mothers and wives are more than their mothers and wives, if they have the chutzpah to actually try to write it.

There are so many talented male writers and directors out there that I want to work with who create and tell wonderful stories.  Is it so much to ask that more of them feature women as actual people?  Is it so much to ask more of them are about women, period? We can do better than 25%.  We can do better than stereotypical labels.  Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, and Emily Blunt shouldn’t have to re-write male parts, and if these women at the top of their game are being forced to do that, then those of us in the earlier phases of our acting careers have it pretty bleak indeed.

14

I nearly moved to New York City four years ago on September 11, 2011: the 10th anniversary of the most horrific day I’ve ever lived through. I had been looking at flights for mid-September during that summer after I graduated college, and not even registering the date, I almost booked my one-way flight on that day. I was wondering why flights were so much cheaper and then it dawned on me that no one wanted to be on a plane that day.  I quickly booked my one-way flight for two days later, September 13, 2011 instead.

I have never been a very superstitious person.  I’m not given to throwing salt over my shoulder or carrying garlic around.  I have no Egyptian ankh necklace to ward off evil spirits.  I don’t cross my fingers when I drive past cemeteries or avoid stepping on cracks in the sidewalk lest I “break my mother’s back.”  While I believe in ghosts, I take a skeptical view of Ouija boards, which are more about the power of suggestion than the power of spirits.  And while I’m a religious person, I don’t see images of Jesus or Mary in my toast.  I’d consider myself an imaginative, open person, but a level-headed one; I’m more Scully than I am Mulder on most days.

But September 11 is not “most days,” and I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to set foot on a plane on that day.  I haven’t in fourteen years, and I imagine I, like so many other people, will never be able to fly on any September 11 ever again.  Rationally, I know the likelihood of another such event happening on the same date is statistically low, but fear isn’t rational.  Anguish isn’t rational.  I can never un-see the things I saw that day; they’ll be with me for the rest of my life, shaping me in ways that I do not always understand or even recognize.  Everything and everyone changed, so I think I’m allowed one superstition; one belief in something born out of a fear. black ribbon

Maybe there is a parallel universe out there somewhere where September 11 never happened and all of us had very different lives.  Wars didn’t start.  People didn’t lose loved ones.  The Towers still stand.  In that world, you don’t have to remove your shoes when you go through airport security.  No one worries about receiving an envelope of a white powdery substance that could be Anthrax.  There’s not a cloud of fear and paranoia hanging over everyone’s heads.  I probably watch too many science fiction television shows and movies, but I’d like to believe that such a place exists even if we can’t see it.  I don’t understand enough about advanced quantum theory to explain it, but maybe it’s possible.  It sounds like something Mulder would say.

When we fly now, we all have to pay something called a “September 11th Fee,” which gives a couple extra dollars to the TSA for the numerous baggage and security screenings we all have to go through.  Flying used to be glamourous once.  Back in the 1960s, it was the height of sophistication; you know, the Jet Set and all that.  People got dressed up, were excited to “pack up and fly away” like Sinatra’s song goes.   Gone are those days.  No longer can you see your loved ones all the way to their gate, watch their plane taxi down the runway while they wave at you from their round, plane window.  Airport travel today means arriving early enough to wait in long lines to have a security guard search your shoes for bombs or pat your body down.  There’s nothing glamourous about knowing security guards are looking for anything that could cause an entire plane of people to crash.  Maybe there is an alternate reality where that doesn’t happen, but this is OUR reality, and we have to live in it.

When I arrived in New York on September 13, 2011, I was hopeful about the future, and I could feel that same hope hanging in the air of the City.  I gratefully stepped off my plane into a New York that was very different from the one it had been ten years previously.  Four years later, the City is still hopeful, growing and changing and adapting as it always has.  People from back home in Missouri often ask me if I am ever scared to live here, and I know what they mean.  The truth is we’re all a little scared, but the hope outweighs the fear.  The perseverance outweighs the fear.  The love outweighs the fear.  If I walked around every day throwing salt over my shoulder, I’d never get anything else done.  Am I afraid sometimes?  Yes.  But even though none of us got a choice in September 11, we all have a choice in how we live the rest of our lives, and I choose to live with hope.  I choose that, and that choice is what gives me strength, even on days like today where it is harder to do that.

So no, I’m not going to start throwing salt over my shoulder.  After all, when salt enters an open wound, it burns.